March Madness: 6 Players Who Can Impact the Tournament on Defense
More often than not, we pay a ton of attention to great offensive players and stellar scoring performances when trying to predict the big dance. On the flipside, we tend to overlook great defensive players or standout defensive performances until they happen.
While the majority of people sleep on the big-time defensive players, let's get a leg up on them. Let's take a look at six players who have the ability to influence a game with their efforts -- whether it's grabbing rebounds, generating steals or blocking shots -- on the defensive end of the floor.
Which players should you account for when weighing your tournament options?
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue Boilermakers
Purdue's Caleb Swanigan, recently named the Big Ten's Player of the Year, has played like a man amongst boys through his sophomore season. In 32 games, the 6'9" forward has ripped down 12.6 total boards per game with 9.9 of those coming at the defensive end, where he's grabbed 33.2% of available defensive rebounds while on the floor -- a rate good for third in the country. Swanigan's elite rebounding could be big against a Vermont team ranked 51st in the nation in total rebound rate (53.1%).
Devontae Cacok, UNC-Wilmington Seahawks
As you've probably seen through various avenues here at numberFire, a slower pace means a smaller sample size and higher variance. The Virginia Cavaliers, UNC-Wilmington's first round opponent, already play at the slowest pace (60.1 possessions per 40 minutes) in the nation, and we shouldn't expect the Seahawks (71.7 possessions) to speed them up. Athletic forward Devontae Cacok should help maintain a slow pace and therefore give Wilmington a better chance at pulling the upset. His defensive rebounding rate of 28.9% ranks third among all tournament players and will be needed against a Hoos team snatching up 52.7% of all available rebounds.
Jevon Carter, West Virginia Mountaineers
Jevon Carter is one of many West Virginia players whose skillsets mesh perfectly with coach Bob Huggins' Press Virginia defense. In 31.7 minutes per game this season, the junior guard has averaged 2.6 steals per game at a rate of 4.6 steals per 100 possessions, placing him seventh and 11th in all of NCAA basketball. In their opening game, up against a Bucknell team ranked 231st with a turnover percentage of 16.9%, expect Carter to feast when Thursday afternoon's contest arrives.
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville Cardinals
Sure, Donovan Mitchell is nowhere to be found on the NCAA's list of the top 20 in steal percentage. And Louisville's defense, usually known for forcing turnovers over the years, are just 117th in the country in total steals. Nonetheless, Mitchell is tied for 18th in the country with 66 total steals, tallying 2.1 per game. His Cardinals will first face the Jacksonville State Gamecocks, who have afforded just under six steals per contest to opposing defenders.
Reggie Lynch, Minnesota Golden Gophers
Usually much more so than rebounding and steals, shot-blocking and shot-altering has proven valuable for past tournament teams. For a team staring down the barrel of a matchup with the tournament's tailor-made Cinderella, it might be even more important. Luckily for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, they have Reggie Lynch, the top player in the tournament in blocks per game (3.5) and block percentage (14.6%). The problem is that Lynch will have to deal with a Middle Tennessee team ranked 26th in the nation in blocks against, but maybe -- just maybe -- he and his Gophers will avoid the dreaded 12-5 upset if Lynch can provide his usual rim protection.
Jo Acuil, Baylor Bears
With Oregon's Chris Boucher on the shelf, the next-best shot-blocker remaining is Baylor's Jo Acuil. Acuil, despite playing 26.4 minutes per game, has earned himself top-15 marks in total blocks (83), blocks per game (2.6) and block percentage (10.8%). The 7-footer is a big reason the 3-seeded Bears are ranked 12th in the country in adjusted defensive rating and 33rd with a block percentage of 13.1%. That will be tough to deal with even for a New Mexico State squad that's been blocked just 58 times on the season -- the lowest total of all college basketball teams this season.